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Half a year after the discovery of 215 unmarked graves at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., those numbers have now grown to almost 1,400 at sites across Canada.

Many of these schools were run by the Catholic Church, spurring calls for a formal apology from Pope Francis. But although a papal visit to Canada was planned, it was postponed just before Christmas because of the new Omicron variant and rising COVID-19 case numbers.

The Vatican has not confirmed the Pope’s travel itinerary, or a new date for that papal meeting with Indigenous leaders from Canada. But at least one prominent delegate is still looking forward to the trip in order to close the loop on his own trauma.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Phil Fontaine told CTV News. “And there’s an opportunity here for the Catholic Church to do the right thing.”

Former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Fontaine was the first Indigenous leader to speak publicly about the horrid abuse he suffered at a residential school 31 years ago.

Fontaine negotiated the Indian Residential Schools settlement agreement in 2006, which later led to the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

He was also instrumental in the federal government’s apology issued by former prime minister Stephen Harper in 2008, and met then Pope Benedict in 2009 when he first went to Rome seeking an apology.

More than a decade later, he hopes an eventual second trip to the Vatican will bring about real change.

“It’s a bit different this time from our private audience with Benedict XVI in 2009,” Fontaine told CTV News.

“There’s been considerable pressure on the apology.”

The 2009 trip was more “discrete,” he said, whereas this time around, there have been more public calls for a formal apology from the Catholic Church, coming from all corners of Canada.

“Canadians have become really shocked and alarmed with the discovery of the unmarked graves, so there’s considerably more pressure on the Catholic Church to do what is right and appropriate,” he said.

This time, 28 delegates are set to meet with Pope Francis in Rome, as opposed to the five who went in 2009.

He added that there is pressure also for the Pope to visit Canada and deliver a public apology “on Canadian soil in one of our First Nations communities.”

During the 2009 meeting, Pope Benedict XVI expressed “sorrow” for the abuse that residential school survivors faced while at the schools, but stopped short of a clear apology.

Fontaine said that on a personal level, “of course I would be thrilled to have an apology from the Holy Father, as I was with the statement of regret from Pope Benedict XVI, though back then I would’ve preferred a full apology.”

After the 2009 trip, he didn’t want to express disappointment over not receiving a full apology from Pope Benedict XVI.

“I wanted to position myself to reassure survivors and others that the statement of regret by Benedict XVI, while not a full apology, was good for us, because there was recognition at the highest level of the Catholic Church that what we had said privately and publicly was true.

“Now, we’re talking about an apology.”

When the delegation meets with Pope Francis, Fontaine said his focus, apart from the apology, will be on “the TRC, the 94 calls to action, and the 10 principals of reconciliation.”

A big part of what makes this situation different from the one in 2009, Fontaine says, is the national outrage that exploded in response to the confirmation of unmarked graves at numerous sites across the country.

Although Indigenous communities have been speaking about the atrocities for years, Fontaine said it seemed those voices were just finally being heard in 2021.

“When the Kamloops discovery was announced, we weren’t shocked by the discovery,” he said. “We had known for some time that there were a number of unmarked graves in different parts of the country.”

It was non-Indigenous Canadians who seemed to wake up, he said.

“This wasn’t a shock to us, but to Canadians, it was. Canadians were asking themselves, ‘How could this be? How could people be treated this way, in Canada?’”

That added pressure from Canadians led to questions about the government and church records related to residential schools, as well as more pressure for an apology from the Catholic Church.

Whether there could be records on residential schools in the Vatican archives is unknown.

Fontaine was in a residential school for a decade starting in 1951, during which he says he endured physical and sexual abuse.

“I don’t recall anyone dying while I was there, but the older generation, like my mother and father, an aunt of ours died in the school,” he said. “We don’t know the cause other than ‘unusual circumstances.’”

Fontaine is hopeful for what the meeting with Pope Francis could bring.

“I’ve been really fortunate that I’ve had many opportunities to be in a position to make a contribution to changes that our community believed were essential and necessary,” he said.

Despite this, he noted that there is still a long road ahead in achieving reconciliation.

“What would make people whole? What would make communities whole? Reconciliation, [but] what does it mean to our communities?” he said. “What does it mean to Canadians? We have to figure this out together, cause it’s a journey that includes all Canadians.

“This is not a responsibility or burden that rests on the shoulders of the people that lived the experience, but on all Canadians, because this is Canadian history.”

Part of that will be finally ending the Indian Act, Fontaine said.

“It doesn’t have a place in our lives. It’s archaic. It’s racist. It’s the only kind of legislation in the world that is about a race of people. It just has to be repealed, [it] has to be set aside. But you can’t do that without putting something in place that is not prohibitive like the Indian Act, but is enabling legislation.”

With the Omicron variant still too volatile to predict, it’s unknown exactly when the trip to the Vatican will happen and when the papal visit to Canada may occur. However, organizers are expecting sometime in spring 2022.  

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